Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How My Life is Better Since I Left - Part 4

I had planned to post all four parts of this series in about 4 or 5 days ... but unfortunately, real life intervened. This past weekend, I was back in my hometown to attend a funeral for someone who died suddenly and way too young. It was a rough and hectic couple of days, but I was glad that I was able to be there for the funeral to show my support for my friend's family and to mourn with everyone else.

I'm back home and back at work now, and oddly enough, have a renewed sense that what I am doing - the decision to leave academia that I made last year and what I've done since then - is exactly what I should be doing. Life is way, way, way too short to spend it doing something that leaves you miserable and stressed and unhappy, even if on paper it looks like you're doing a great job or living in a great area.

I'm not in my dream career job yet and I'm not doing a job that my degrees would suggest that I "should be doing," but dammit ... I'm happy and fulfilled right now. If I died tomorrow, I would not for a second regret the last year of my life.

A job - or a relationship or city or anything else - is only as great and wonderful as it makes you feel. If it makes you feel like crap, it's not for you. And it's okay to make yourself happy, because as I saw all too clearly this week, life is way too motherf*cking short to be miserable.

Anyway, here is the final installment in the Reasons I'm Glad I Left Academia One Year Ago series. I may add a part 5 later on, as more things occur to me. But for now, we'll cap the list at 20.

16. If I hadn't decided to leave, I would never have started this blog. And if I had never started this blog, I'd have never realized that (a) other people are also unhappy in grad school/academia, or that (b) other people recognize the criticisms I've had of academia for years.

It's a very lonely feeling to think that you're the only person in the world who doesn't like a certain thing, or that you're the only person in a given situation who wants a different life. Take a look around the internet and see how many times you see the words "I had no idea anyone else felt this way!!!" written, about hundreds of different topics. We all think we're alone from time to time, and it's always a tremendous relief to find out that other people feel the same way we do.

Disliking academia is no different. For a long time, I interpreted my dislike of academia as if something was wrong with me. After all, everyone around me seemed to love it! Clearly, it was me who was messed up ... me who didn't understand what a great place academia was, me who couldn't handle the workload because I was lazy, me who just wasn't smart enough to stick it out and get papers published and devote myself to this meaningful, fulfilling work.

Then I left, and started this blog, and before 24 hours had passed I started getting traffic from people who were googling things like "I hate academia" or "I'm miserable in grad school." And instantly, I felt better. Even if my grad school friends really were happy, I could now see that there were people out there who felt like me. And if I wasn't the only one feeling that way, my decision to leave couldn't just be a case of how I "wasn't smart enough" or "couldn't hack it."

In short, I realized I wasn't alone. And if I hadn't decided to leave, I would have continued to suffer in silence, thinking something was wrong with me.

17. Because nonacademic job interviews are normal. They last a reasonable amount of time, and typically you're interviewed by an HR person (who hires people for a living) and then by someone who would be your supervisor or someone who would work closely with you.

I don't know what readers here understand about academic job interviews, but they are batshit crazy. Now, of course you should expect to go visit the campus and to meet a bunch of people up the bureaucratic chain - after all, they're potentially hiring you for a lifetime appointment. However, the stress and ridiculousness of an interview process that spans from 24-48 hours and that encompasses meetings with dozens of people (faculty members from totally different departments, random groups of students, high-level administrators) who you will probably never work closely with and who will have no say over your actual hiring (but will undoubtedly let people know if you come off as weird or unfriendly during your interview) cannot be overemphasized.

And I'm not sure that these marathon academic interviews are any more effective than the more concise and focused interviews that exist in the outside world. Everyone who's ever had contact with an academic department knows that each one has a few duds on staff who don't fit in or do a good job (just like at any nonacademic company out there who conducts two-hour interviews). There is no foolproof method for ensuring that a candidate will be a perfect fit for any job.

So given the choice, I'll take a job in an industry where the interview process doesn't resemble a multi-day hazing ritual, thanks.

18. I won't ever have to convince myself that the work I'm doing is meaningful or important anymore. If it is, it is. If it's not, it's not. Most likely, whether or not I actually make a difference in the world with my work will vary by day.

But the important part is that I can just be okay with that. I won't be going around deluding myself that my journal articles are making a real difference or that my undergraduate students are all having their lives changed by me.

I'm just doing a job. I'm doing a job where I'm trying to make a difference and help people (and I know that sometimes I do). But in the end, I'm working for a company that is trying to break even financially, and is paying me to that end. The mission of my company isn't couched in nonsense buzzwords about "molding the minds of young people" or "contributing to the larger body of knowledge to shape the world" or some other nonsense ... all while they cut faculty positions and raise tuition in a blatant attempt to save money.

Something is starting to feel dishonest to me about academia and higher education more generally. People caught up in it try to fool themselves that they are doing something with a higher purpose or that they are doing something more meaningful and important than the rest of us drones. But in the end, a university or college is a business just like any other, and they will try to break even. At least in the outside world, this is out in the open ... and we don't have to delude ourselves by thinking that our work is "more important" in some unknowable way.

Along those lines...

19. When I do a good job at work or take on more responsibility, I'm sometimes rewarded with extra money or a promotion. Is this the case with every job in the world? Of course not. Has it been the case for jobs I've had? Yes. I've gotten raises at every full-time job I've had for longer than six months.

So before you conclude that every nonacademic job treats its employees like drones and refuses to pay them a fair wage or reward them for a job well done, understand that every job is not like that.

My partner's been denied a raise at one job when he asked. He was also voluntarily given a raise and promotion after less than a year at two of his other jobs. My best friend just got promoted at work, while another friend got a raise just before she left for a better job with more pay.

My point in telling these stories is definitely not to say that all nonacademic jobs are awesome and reward you with raises and promotions. It's simply to provide a contrast with academic jobs, where raises are awarded at the end of the academic year in accordance with cost of living adjustments or promotions - and not always then if the university is facing a budget shortfall. And where promotions happen on a set schedule (assistant -> associate -> full professor), only after you formally apply for them.

And it's an especially sharp contrast with life as a grad student or adjunct, where you're not only poorly paid and don't typically get raises, but where after a certain number of years, you have to keep begging for another year of employment (at the same wage).

In the outside world, there are certainly worries about layoffs and other such things. But typically, such worries don't pop up every single year like clockwork. And you don't typically find yourself going to your boss every year to beg them to please please please allow you to work another year doing the same job you've been doing satisfactorily already. If a real-life company isn't facing job cuts and you are doing a good job for them, generally you will stay hired. You don't have to keep begging to keep your same job.

But that's how it works in grad school (and adjuncthood and other temporary faculty jobs). And I'm so glad to be done with that nonsense. So freaking glad.


And finally ... and most importantly, out of all of the reasons I'm happy that I left academia ... as I said above?

20. Because life is too f*cking short to keep doing something that makes you miserable.

As I've said before, there are two types of academic leavers. Everyone doesn't fall into the Type 1 category like me - those of us who grew to dislike academia and who actively want to leave. But if you fall into this category - if you're finding you hate every second you spend doing the work? Seriously consider leaving. Whatever struggles you will have while finding a new job will be temporary. Maybe it'll be a week, maybe it'll be six months, maybe it'll be five years. But it's temporary, compared with a lifetime of misery doing a job that you hate, most likely in a geographic location you would never dream of living in.

And even if you're a Type 2 leaver who can't find steady employment, this advice applies to you as well. Even if you love the work of an academic, you shouldn't keep doing it if you can't make a suitable living doing it. Part of happiness is being able to live a full adult life, where you can pay your bills and afford a few luxuries and have some time to just relax. If academia doesn't provide you with those things and you're miserable, it doesn't matter how much you love the work.

If you're miserable, it's okay to make yourself happy. Life is too f*cking short.


  1. God, number 20 is so true. I am a Type 2 leaver, and you are so, so, so right.

    1. As academics we seriously undervalue the importance of a full life. Like you posted this weekend, being able to take a day trip to a nearby city and just *enjoy your life* may not be groundbreaking academic work, but it matters too. And it's hard to do if you're adjuncting at four colleges or barely making a living wage.

      And it's not like we lose our ability to read, write, and think when we leave academia. I just don't see any reason to stay if you can't make ends meet and have no spare time to enjoy your non-work life.

  2. Life is so short, so true... My parents even with PhD in hands, community work outside Academia, 13 years teaching the same classes over and over again, etc... They were always sing in as 'contracts', so sad and frustating... I applaud your decision, JC

  3. I love love love your reason #17. It's sooooo true!

    And for point 16, to your a) and b), I would add: c)there are other ways, like this blog, to keep writing, and d)blogging is a good way to increase sharply the number of people who actually read (and enjoy reading!) your writing.

    Keep the good work. It's inspiring, and keeps me motivated to find my way out.

    1. Thanks for catching my numbering mistake!! :)

      I completely agree ... I guarantee that more eyes have looked at any random post on this blog than have looked at even the *title* of my publications in the past five years or so. Academia isn't the only way to get your voice heard in the big bad world. In fact, other methods might be *more* effective!

  4. "18. I won't ever have to convince myself that the work I'm doing is meaningful or important anymore."

    You don't need to -- if you consider your blog your work, we all know it's true!

    Seriously, this blog has been an enormous source of comfort in the last year. I'm a recent PhD transitioning out of academia -- pretty successfully -- but it's been tough. I've checked in here regularly just to feel like I'm not alone and to see things I've been thinking about privately be openly addressed.

    You write well, too -- clear, simple and engaging. Obviously academia didn't rub off on you. ;)

    1. Aww, thanks for the compliments! I have enjoyed writing this blog more than I expected, and it's comforting to see that other people are getting something from it. :)

      As to your last point ... hmm. Maybe that's why I had a comparatively tough time getting stuff published in academia...heh. :)

  5. I am sooooo glad I found your blog!! Thank you for doing this, if I had known graduate school was going to be like this, I would have thought twice before starting grad school. I left my home and tons of friends to travel to a new country and undergo graduate training. Three years later, I have made more enemies than friends thanks to cut-throat competition in grad school and lack of socializing, I have lost touch with few great friends that I had back home, cried more in the last 3 years than I have in my whole life and bitterly bitterly regret joining grad school.

    Thank you and I wish someday I find the courage to let go as well.

  6. Late to the game here, but I agree with the other "Anonymous." After getting my Ph.D. in English, I decided that spending my life churning out journal articles that would never get read wouldn't make me happy. I really enjoyed teaching and working with students and am now happily employed in an alt-ac position in which I mentor at-risk college students and help them succeed. In addition to being immensely fulfilling work, the pay and hours are good, so I get to have that "full life" that academics seem to scoff at but secretly covet. Reading this blog has been pleasantly cathartic as well as a relief that those of us are leave are not alone.

    Thanks for the work you do here!